West Asia crisis giving way to Israel vs Ukraine competition over US aid. Biden can’t do both

The Ukraine war had dominated the global turn of events and analyses ever since Russia launched a special military operation against its neighbour in February 2022. No matter how delayed and calibrated, military assistance by the United States alone has been the critical driver behind Ukraine’s resistance against a far bigger and more formidable adversary.

However, Hamas’ brutal attack on Israel on 7 October compounded several factors at once and turned the world’s attention away from Ukraine. From the perspective of the ongoing war in Europe, the West Asian crisis has created a diversion in US military aid — although the nature of Washington’s aid to Kyiv and Jerusalem requires closer scrutiny. Hamas’ attack has also created adversity for Russia, which has had a close relationship with Israel. Finally, it has further bewildered the calculus of an economically distressed and war-fatigued Europe that was gearing up to militarily support Ukraine as the war enters its second winter.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with his penchant for adept diplomacy, seems to have read into the mounting pressure on his allies, especially on the US. Rather than publicly expressing his apprehensions about impending competition with Jerusalem over ammunition aid, he has pitched Ukraine more as a sympathetic ally to Israel and the West. Zelenskyy has also been realistic all this while: The President made a quick trip to NATO headquarters to secure an additional $2 billion in aid for Ukraine as sirens rang through the skies and rubble mounted on the streets in southern Israel.

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Friends & foes and shifting national interests

There is little doubt that an intensifying war in West Asia, especially if Israel chooses to proceed with the ground offensive in Gaza, will impact the US’ ability to support Ukraine both militarily and economically.

It will also affect Russia’s equation with Israel. And the tide seems to be turning already.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that the Israel-Hamas war was “a clear example of the failure of US politics in the Middle East”, offering no condolences for the Israelis killed in the attack. Meanwhile, the handshake with China got firmer in the past two days: Putin, who skipped the recently concluded BRICS and G20 summits in Johannesburg and Delhi, received a red carpet welcome in Beijing at the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) forum.

The longstanding war in Ukraine — besides unprecedentedly drawing Russia and China closer — has started deep cooperation between Russia and Iran, especially when it comes to the supply of Iranian Shahed drones that Moscow has used extensively. That is why Iran has become far more important to Russia than Israel today. And if Iran and Lebanon’s militant organisation Hezbollah are, in fact, supporting Hamas as the Western intelligence says, the West Asian war will evolve to be a very uncomfortable situation that could upend Russia’s West Asia strategy in manifold ways.

Also read: Israel attack was predictable. Netanyahu is a failed leader & Palestine doesn’t deserve Hamas

The more direct impact

In terms of a more direct impact of the West Asian situation on Ukraine, a closer scrutiny of US military aid and its mechanisms is warranted.

The US already sends about $3 billion in annual military aid to Israel, making the West Asian country the largest recipient of American aid since World War II. Sending extra aid will test the capabilities of the already strained arms manufacturing supply chains that have been so far focused on Ukraine.

But do Israel and Ukraine need similar military aid? Perhaps not.

On the one hand, the military assistance that the US is sending to Israel in the aftermath of the Hamas attack is different from the kind it supplies to Ukraine. The former includes precision-guided munitions (PGMs) fired from F35s, F16s, and Apaches, the requirement of which may go up if Israel starts a ground offensive in Gaza. Jerusalem may also need greater volumes of aid for interceptor replenishments for its Iron Dome system.

Only a few days after the Hamas attack, the US moved the USS Gerald R Ford Carrier Strike Group, its most advanced aircraft carrier to the Eastern Mediterranean alongside warships. It also sent the USS Normandy, a guided missile cruiser with guns and an assortment of destroyers like the Thomas Hudne and Roosevelt.

It is noteworthy that the Pentagon has also positioned a stockpile of ammunition worth $2 billion at six sites across Israel for emergency deployment.

On the other hand, none of such military assistance goes to Ukraine. Kyiv is looking for ways to bolster its attack on Crimea and fight a painful battle of attrition along the frontline. And that is where the $2 billion aid package that Zelenskyy secured at NATO may help. The aid came after the arrival of the long-awaited Army Tactical Missile System (ATAMCS), both cluster and long-range, multiple US sources, including National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson, confirmed. It followed Ukraine’s deadly attack on Russia’s Berdyansk and Luhansk airfields in eastern Ukraine on 17 October.

ATAMCS are fired from High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers already supplied to Ukraine. They complement the Storm Shadow missiles given by the United Kingdom, which have been crucial in Ukraine’s increasing attacks on Russia’s Black Sea fleet in the past two months.

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Where do Israel and Ukraine really compete?

The West Asia crisis may not immediately impact US aid to Israel and Ukraine, but a larger competitive situation over ammunition aid can’t be ruled out. The competition will be over the 155 mm artillery shells that both Kyiv and Jerusalem have been heavily relying on. The US will have to dig deep into its munitions stockpiles around the world for its aid to remain steadily afloat.

Another point of competition might be over the US’ internal mechanism of providing military aid known as the drawdown authority. In support of the aid to Ukraine, Congress has progressively increased the cap on this drawdown authority from $100 million to $11 billion for 2022, most recently in the Additional Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act 2022. Since then, the Joe Biden Administration has deployed the Presidential Drawdown Authority 44 times to provide military assistance to Kyiv.

Now, with the war in Israel, the Biden administration is weighing the use of some part of the drawdown authority to send weapons to the Middle Eastern country. The world seems set to see more movement of drawdown authority, a reiteration of the intersectional crises of our times.

These fluctuations come at a time when the House and Senate are undergoing extraordinary political instability, which increased after the ouster of Rep Kevin McCarthy as House speaker early this month. Without a speaker, the House cannot pass legislation that raises apprehensions about when the aid will really begin to flow.

If defence secretary Lloyd Austin’s recent statement in Brussels accurately adumbrates the thinking in DC, the Biden administration is pursuing to complementarily support both Ukraine and Israel.

Despite such assurances, and the fact that the weapons being currently sent to Ukraine and Israel differ, the strain on US abilities is imminent. Washington needs to devise separate strategies for Eastern Europe and the Middle East — and prepare for another war in the straits. The triangle of US security assistance, spread across diverse geographies and entwined contexts, remains a complex proposition to actualise.

The most critical determinant for US support to Ukraine will be the election in November 2024. That may taper down America’s attention to Ukraine, regardless of who comes to power because the public support for more military support to Ukraine has been declining. Brussels knows it and has, therefore, been paying heed to play a more tangible role in arming Ukraine and putting together a more sustainable security architecture for itself. It is doing so despite all the hurdles, mainly its vulnerable critical infrastructure as shown by attacks on Nord Stream-2 and the recent attack on the Baltic Connector.

The dynamics of wars across disparate and yet inter-connected fronts are befuddling. A deeper question that strategist and writer Mick Ryan recently addressed was about the inevitability of surprise in war. The takeaway is, there is little one can pre-empt to factor in the disruptions in the bizarre workings of human ability to cause, repel, and counter means and forms of destruction.

The writer is an Associate Fellow, Europe and Eurasia Center, at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. She tweets @swasrao. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)